— PEORIA, Ariz. — Tom Wilhelmsen was a rising star who walked away from the game. Now, seven years later, he’s taking a second shot at chasing his dream.
Wilhelmsen fell in love with baseball when he was 4 years old. He dreamed of becoming the next Gary Carter, and decided his future would reside on a baseball diamond “as soon as I knew you could do it.”
His father, John, helped him cultivate the dream, putting a bat in his hand. Supporting, encouraging and coaching as young Tom grew up into a tall, lanky prep star pitcher with a slingshot for a right arm.
The Brewers drafted him in the seventh round in 2002, and Wilhelmsen immediately impressed with a blazing fastball that reached into the high 90s. He was promoted to the Beloit (Wis.) Snappers of the Midwest League (Class A), which in retrospect might have been a mistake. Suddenly he was far away from his Tucson, Ariz., home, a 19-year-old on a team dominated by more seasoned players in their early- and mid-20s. He wasn’t ready for the change. And a work ethic that was sufficient in high school and rookie ball was no longer good enough.
“I didn’t work out as much as I should. I didn’t condition. I didn’t take care of my body,” Wilhelmsen said, laughing at his own immaturity. “I figured I was — I don’t know if ‘good enough to not work out’ is the right thing to say — but I figured what I was doing was working, so why change it? It ended up biting me in the butt, and I went down with an injury.”
Inflammation in his shoulder limited him to 15 games in Beloit, and while his numbers were good (5-5, 2.76 ERA) it was obvious that his focus was slipping.
“I was young and excited to hang out with a bunch of older guys,” he said. “There was a lot of beer and grass — for me, not for all the guys. That was the major off-the-field issue, just not taking care of my body, and burning both ends.
“A lot of guys can do it and get their work in, and take care of what they need to do. I wasn’t one of those guys.”
After testing positive for marijuana twice, Wilhelmsen was ordered by the Brewers to enter a rehabilitation program, and the team suspended him for the 2004 season. Injured, upset and disillusioned, Wilhelmsen quit.
“My heart just wasn’t in it,” he said. “I was wasting my time and my coach’s time, and they’re busy. They’ve got guys they want to instruct and teach. I was just a thorn in their side, really.”
He took to the road and got away from the game, traveling to Europe, Mexico and the western U.S. He got a job tending bar in Tucson, Ariz. And slowly, he grew up. He married his high school sweetheart Cassie, and the late nights behind the bar weren’t so enticing. Eventually, the game called him back.
In 2010, Wilhelmsen reached out to the Mariners — Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik worked previously for the Brewers and was familiar with Wilhelmsen — and a minor-league contract followed. At 26 and with a well-rested arm, he went 7-1 with a 2.19 ERA at three different stops. He and Cassie moved from Tucson to Peoria to have offseason access to the Mariners’ training facilities. The couple took a pay cut — Wilhelmsen still makes the trek to Tucson to tend bar a couple nights a week in the offseason — but the love of the game is back.
Wilhelmsen is easy-going, gracious and friendly, the perfect personality to work the bar. But he’s happy to be back on the field, away from the late nights, the post-work drinks and flopping into bed at 4 a.m. He’s healthy, focused and determined to not let his second chance slip away. If he doesn’t realize his dream of playing in the big leagues, it won’t be due to a lack of effort this time around.
“My goals right now are to stay healthy and keep learning, and wear a smile and enjoy it,” he said. “Everything else will fall into place if I just keep at it, and keep working hard.”